Thursday, 31 January 2019

RETRO REVIEWING: The Girl in the Photograph - Kate Riordan

I love Kate Riordan's books. I think I've read them all except her short story, The Red Letter. This was the first one I reviewed  published in January 2015 which makes it a retro review but she gets a blog post all to herself!!! 

I wish I hadn’t read this book, I really do. Because if I hadn’t I would still have it here waiting for me to begin and become enveloped in its poignant tale of two intertwined lives.

I’m seldom an admirer of ‘book blurb’ and when I read that this story was for fans of Kate Atkinson and Kate Morton, both of whom I love, I was ready to deride the comparison. I had read The Birdcage, Kate Riordan’s first novel, a good historical novel but not up there with the Misses Atkinson and Morton. But, oh boy, how right the blurbers are!! More Morton than Atkinson but this just sucks you into the vortex of its narrative and you don't want to leave until you’ve unravelled the stories of these two women. The atmosphere created is palpable.

When Alice first arrives at Fiercombe Manor I was reminded of Daphne Du Maurier and Rebecca. It seemed, momentarily, that Mrs. Danvers was returned, incarnate, in the body of Mrs.Jelphs, appearing like a phantom at the window of Alice's room.  But any comparisons slowly ebbed away as this writer claimed her own voice within this story.

All the characters are well developed and they all serve a purpose, there’s nothing wasted here, no words, no depictions are gratuitous but that doesn’t mean that this is an economic story. The descriptions are full, rich and accessible, a juxtaposition of control and flow. 

The term of a pregnancy used to be refereed to as a confinement and this word is an apt, almost allegorical, description of the lives of both Alice and Elizabeth whose confinements go way beyond their pregnancies. And if we are going to extend this natal metaphor Alice must go full term to unravel the mystery and the history of Elizabeth Stanton. 

Thank you, Real Readers, for this book. I loved it.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

RETRO REVIEWING: A Robert Olen Butler trio

The Hot Country published in 2012 was the first Of Robert Olen Butler's books that Real Readers sent my way. They were good enough to send me three more, two more Christopher Marlowe Cobb adventures and The Perfume River reviewed on this blog in 2016. Let's start with the first!

I loved this book!! From the opening sentences I was transported to the era of the Beats and when Tallahassee Slim was introduced I was walking alongside Kerouac again!
Clearly this is the work of an experienced writer who knows how to work and please his audience. I note that Mr. Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winner so he must be good!! And for me, he is.
If you like your swashes being buckled then this is the book for you. Page turning skirmishes of credible violence. But it wasn’t just blood and thunder there was an elegance to the form and style of the prose and the development of the characters that was simply so satisfying to read. It is an intelligent adventure story with enough diversity within the core of the story to keep attention and interest alert. In fact there is so much in the book that works alongside the basic tale. A treatise on relationships at several levels from filial, to lust, to love, to loyalty, to compassion.

My fear for a novel such as this is that it may be overlooked as just an historical tale of intrigue and war but it has so much more depth than that. Thank you to Mr Butler for writing this and as always thank you to Real Readers for allowing me to possess it!

Next the Star of Istanbul published in May 2015........

Real Readers was kind enough to send me a copy of The Hot Country a few months ago and I loved the book. It was the first of, what I see now will be a series of books, ‘starring’ Christopher Marlowe Cobb. So I was delighted to receive another book by Robert Olen Butler which is the second in this series with the promise of a third in the pipeline. And if Real Readers don't send that one to me then I will buy it for myself!!

I believe in the US it is referred to as ‘sophomore slump’, here in the UK ‘second album syndrome’ and whilst Mr. Butler has many novels to his credit this is the second of the Kit Cobb stories and could have fallen prey to the aforementioned predicament but it doesn’t, not in any way shape or form. So the problem in attempting a review is that I am forced almost into duplicating what I said when I reviewed The Hot Country.

It is just as good, with another well structured tale that is intelligently written, a high quality adventure story that is well paced with characters that are easy to engage with. All the clues were there to determine the final identity of the ‘baddie’. And I’m pleased to say that I did twig early on. But what was interesting was that often when you can figure the conundrum out early in the book it can make the reading of the book an anti climax. But this wasn't the case here. It was as if I had a little secret and I couldn't wait for Cobb to find out!

Again the historical details are fascinating and well researched. And in so many ways it is all a book should be if you’re looking to be entertained on a sustained level. The amount of bloodshed is possibly always going to be issue depending upon your viewpoint. But it is used here to offer up a moral dilemma on the part of, certainly, the main character so that it never becomes gratuitous. 

And so now I patiently wait for Christopher Marlowe Cobb and The Empire of the Night.

Finally The Empire of the Night published in November 2015.....

This is the third Christopher Marlowe Cobb thriller and I’m tempted to say that if you’ve read one then you’ve read them all but that sounds derogatory and that couldn't be further from my intention.
This edition, apparently, “is a special pre publication limited edition of 200 copies to mark the Robert Olen Butler UK tour”. But before you get as excited as I did the tour was in May and I missed it.

My real problem is what can I add to what I have already said in my reviews of the previous two books?  It is on a par with them, formulaic almost but without being predictable. What that does though is allow one to know what to expect from the writer. However all of these books can be enjoyed as stand alone tales. They all have a consistency within them.

What I particularly enjoyed in The Empire of Night is the development and exploration of the relationship between Kit and his mother. I thought that was very well done and captured enough emotion without being sentimental. 

Other than that, again,  it’s structured, intelligent writing from an experienced writer. A good adventure story, a war story with a purpose, some cerebral violence that never becomes gratuitous, doesn't make it pleasant though. And plenty of characters created with depth and integrity. 

It’s excellent of its genre and won't disappoint if you’re a fan of the genre, and the previous stories.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

RETRO REVEWING: Random trio - Sally Weiner Grotta, Sam Millar and Jason Starr

Another trio of random titles plucked from my seemingly never ending supply of reviews that have not been blogged! This first was an ebook. I joined Librarything primarily as a vehicle to post my reviews when I was just reviewing for Real Readers. Then I saw Librarything offered ARCs and in spite of my antipathy towards e-reading I was attracted to this book. Published in June 2013 it looks at prejudice.

This was an e-book from LibraryThing.
There are two aspects of this book that really stood out for me; one was the cinematographic descriptions.
Right from the start of the book I could see the landscapes and the people and the events unfold as if I were watching a film. And it made me think that I would love to see this story on the big screen. 
The second and dominant aspect was the book’s ability to challenge our preconceptions of what racism and prejudice is really all about. 
I’m not one for going down the spoilers route when I’m reviewing books so suffice to say the character who is the victim of prejudice and discrimination is also in possession of prejudice which dictates their thoughts and actions. The final dénouement, whilst never resolving the wider aspects of prejudice does show how an individual can confront their own bigotry and overcome it.
This is a deceptive book, you can get swept up in the narrative of the story and then the full impact and depth of the themes dealt with in the book really hit you.

It is well worth reading.

The second which hit the bookstands in September 2014 was a YA tale of kids taking matters into their own hands. 

This was a gripping tale that bounced along on a wave of adolescence angst and violence. Atmospheric, full of suspense and revenge. It reminded me of other books I’d read. Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones particularly the mother figure. I half expected Tommy to have to dig a hole in the garden when his mother’s wrath was working itself into a crescendo of suitable punishment. Lorenzo Carcaterra’s Sleepers, The Lovely Bones, or maybe it follows the fashion of having adolescent boys as narrators, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Looking for Alaska. I felt, as they were characters I already knew but had become enmeshed in a new plot.
I am not a fan of violence. There are times when it is fundamental to the plot or the point the writer is trying to make. I did feel here that it was often gratuitous. And as such it was a joyless book in many respects.
However it was well constructed and well written, no real surprises in terms of the plot and the outcome. It is not an uncommon device to steer the reader into believing that one person is responsible for an action that was in fact perpetrated by someone else. 

But it is how you arrive there that separates a good writer from a bad. And this is the work of a good writer.

The final offering today is another book by Jason Starr, I should have put them both together in their own past. Too late!! Published in October 2015 Starr's uncomfortable fiction continued to draw me in.

Savage Lane makes Peyton Place seem like Toytown. This is a novel of obsession. Obsessive obsession even. And like Cold Caller there are no likeable characters in this story. Even the people whose behaviour is not reprehensible, and there aren’t many (!), are not inherently likeable. It’s very uneasy reading and yet you are carried along in a relentless current. You wonder how one group of people can all get it so badly wrong at the same time. Like Cold Caller there is what I would like to call that frustrating ‘essence of Highsmith’ where a single misplaced thought or action takes a character or characters down a very wrong road. and you are willing them not to do it, not to think that way, not to take that particular action, but they do, again and again. It’s a crime story and yet it isn’t. It’s the psychology of obsession and the destruction it wreaks on those involved whether they are choosing to be involved or not. Without the obsession there is no crime. American suburban life is not all that it seems.

To say this is an enjoyable book is hard but it does compel you to read on and on and on. I read this in a couple of days because I couldn't put it down. I read it in preference to doing other more pressing and important things because I couldn't put it down. It was almost as if I had become obsessed by the book. Mr. Starr must be some kind of conjuror!! But the overall feeling is one of being slightly unnerved by it all. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

RETRO REVIEWING: A Miscellany – Anton Disclafani, Annie Weir and Leigh Russell

Today's blogpost kicks off with a book I loved, published in November 2013. One of those books of which you have few expectations but ends up delighting you for no good reason other than it does!! A moment of synchronicity maybe?

I absolutely loved this book. But don’t ask me why!! In many places it wasn’t well written; I read some sentences several times and they still didn’t make sense!  Maybe it’s the remaining child in me rising to the surface. I remember after reading Enid Blyton’s St. Clare’s series beseeching my parents to send me away to boarding school! But is this just a boarding school story? No. Some may say it’s a coming of age novel, others a love story but for me it was the tale of an individual shedding the layers of childhood to womanhood in such a vulnerable, sore way, of questioning decorum, attitudes and conventions and simply making choices to do or not do the right thing.

I’m always a sucker for a debut novel; I find the anticipation and the possibility of a future genius completely beguiling. And Real Readers have frequently given me that opportunity - books I wouldn’t have selected from choice. However this one is different, the title alone piqued my interest.

This story delighted me. It moves along at a perfect pace, not so fast that you cannot grasp the essential elements of the narrative but not so slow as to lose your interest. The dénouement of what Thea has actually done wrong was so gradually unwoven and all the time I was thinking it had to be this or that. Little morsels of clues offered urging you to read on, tantalising as Thea, herself, tantalised.

The characters seemed real, flawed, as we all are, aware of their shortcomings sometimes, but powerless to change their intrinsic being. And the evocation of the South, could this be Scarlett O’ Hara reincarnated? 

I said earlier that I couldn’t say why I loved this book. I think I’ve answered myself in this review.

Wonderful story, thank you Anton Disclafani.

I read this as a pdf and I can't remember the provenance of it! Possibly and most likely it was from the group that only sent me ebooks as I had to offer up a star rating. I ended up feeling I’d rather be BillyNoMates than be friends with Judith!! It was a first novel and having revisited it I'm tempted to see what Annie Weir has been up to since. 

This is a tricky one to review without giving too much away. The Press Release gives little away other than to hint at the darker side of friendships. I find the appeal of novels like these curious -  I could not put it down, the compulsion to read it bordered on obsession almost. And why? The protagonist is not a nice person. There was little cheer in the entire novel. I was reminded of a couple of Jason Starr’s books where the same thing happens, uncomfortable, sometimes chilling reads and yet you cannot stop yourself reading. It also has that Patricia Highsmith quality of wrong decisions sending events spiralling along the wrong path and attempts to ’correct’ with another wrong decision send things out of control. And control seems to be at the heart of this. For Judith is a consummate control artist and what happens when a true control freak loses control? All hell breaks loose, everything unravels. And it beggars the question whether control really is control?

It isn’t often a debut novel grips you so firmly in its thrall. For me it fell short of five stars because I found some of the dialogue prosaic, it took us nowhere and I found the ending disappointing as if I’d been left dangling a little. But in a way there were few places left for Judith to go and I suppose you are left examining your own feelings about Judith and why she behaved as she did and, even more darkly, your own set of friends and acquaintances.

And if we really want to get paranoid, your own self!!!! Nah, just kidding.

I'd never read any Leigh Russell although this is the fifth Geraldine Steel thriller published in May 2013. Leigh Russell has legions of fans which is great. But I'm not one of them. Sorry. That's just the way it is. Reading is subjective and you simply can't love every book you read. I hope I've been fair and objective to a degree in the review though.

I was unfamiliar with this writer so when my Real Readers copy of this book burst through my letterbox I was excited. There’s nothing I like better than a good crime novel. But this is not a good crime novel. Maybe that’s a little too harsh. The plot is pretty tight and well constructed for the most part but I did realise who the killer was. Take away the crime plot and what you have left is …… more or less……chick lit.
For me a good crime novel uses words with economy and meaning. All the language is important and relevant to the crime but here there is too much unnecessary leit motive description. All too often we hear about Guy’s bulk and his muscles, but why? It played no part in the plot. At first I thought it was to suggest he was capable of the crime but it quickly became clear that wasn’t so. There are domestic exchanges about things like filling the dishwasher that do nothing to further the plot or develop the characters.
Geraldine Steel is not an unlikeable character but whether she can stay the test of time and take her place along side Miss Gladden, Miss Marple, V I Warshawski, Sharon McCone, Carol Jordan etc only time will tell. My guess is not, there just isn’t enough substance.
But how about if I’ve missed the ultimate intention of the writer? Maybe she intended to fuse crime and chick lit? Open the front doors of a new genre to a whole new audience through a side window?
If that’s the case then this book succeeds admirably.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019 - Reflections

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

Okay, so this is usually a bookish blog. Rarely do I depart from that remit. But I’m a great believer in following your instinct or intuition. And something within me is demanding that I write a piece for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019. 

I was very pleased last year when the town close to where I live chose to plant a tree to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day 2018 and it’s along the route I often walk. 
But in keeping with the intent behind the blog as a whole here is a list of Holocaust themed books that have been reviewed on this blog since I began it.

Testament - Kim Sherwood and also an interview with her
Mischling - Affinity Konar
The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris
The Good Doctor of Warsaw - Elizabeth Gifford
The Deaths Head Chess Club - John Donghue
The Red Ribbon - Lucy Adlington

I  commend them all to you.

In truth I don’t know exactly how to describe my relationship with the Holocaust. Interested sounds too casual, fascinated doesn’t sound right. Perplexed maybe? I am perplexed by the Holocaust.  Whatever the word is I can’t seem to leave the Holocaust alone. But when did it start? This perplexing of mine?

My father was twenty when war broke out and my mother was a girl on the cusp of womanhood, probably around Anne Frank’s age. The war destroyed many of their hopes and dreams, not to mention the lives of several close to them. I think my mother maintained a bitterness her whole life. I think my father, as a soldier, was grateful just to have escaped intact. But throughout my childhood there were mutterings and murmurings about the war. There were hushed whisperings of words like Belsen and Dachau. But it was whilst watching the 1973 ITV series, The World at War with my father, that the impact hit me. It was the footage of the liberation of Belsen. At this point in my life I knew nothing of dead bodies and I struggled to comprehend the images before me. I believe that was the point at which I decided I needed to know exactly what had happened. I didn’t know why. I just felt that it was important. Also because it meant something was very wrong. I was still in my teens then but I have continued to read and investigate this most heinous atrocity ever since.

The first time I openly sobbed in public was in January 2000. I visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, NYC. It was relatively new having been opened in 1997. Two exhibits strongly remain in my head. One filled me with disbelief and disgust. It was a German board game ‘Out With the Jews’. I felt sick. The second exhibit was one of the striped uniforms standing upright in a glass display case. The poignancy of that tipped me over the edge and I left, tears streaming down my face. 

The second time I cried publicly because of the Holocaust was at Auschwitz. To say I wanted to visit the camps is not accurate. I felt I must, I felt I should, I felt I had to.  And so in April 2008 a couple of friends and I travelled to Poland. We stayed in Krakow and following the advice of the hotel personnel decided, rather than visit under our own steam, to take advantage of one of the coach tours to Oswiecim, which is the Polish name for the town. It was April 19th. It was a grey, drizzly day, most appropriate. On the coach we were shown a documentary about the Russians who filmed the liberation of the camps. 

There were three camps at Auschwitz; Monowitz where Primo Levi was a prisoner and which was primarily a labour camp where the IG Farben factory, who manufactured the Zyklon B gas canisters, was located, Auschwitz, the main camp which was formerly a Polish army barracks and - Birkenau a killing factory, you can’t call it a camp. Although you can visit the main camp and Birkenau there’s very little left of Monowitz now and I’m not sure if it is possible to visit what remains of the site. 

When we arrived we were told that as the main camp was ‘crowded’ we would go to Birkenau first. I got off the coach and saw barbed wire and guard boxes as far as the eye could see. The long gatehouse with that formidable, single rail track running underneath that chilling arch was attracting Japanese tourists who were taking photographs of each other standing on the track. I’m not joking. After the journey I was actually requiring the facilities at that point. They were located in the guard house. But I simply couldn’t countenance the idea of setting foot in that damned building so I hung on. It seemed minimal discomfort given my location. So I stood and waited for those who were less bothered than I. You’ve probably heard it said that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz. It’s absolutely true. They perch on the perimeter fence and warble but they do not fly across that bleak, barren wasteland. 

Our tour guide led us up the central reservation alongside the train track, grassy now. The evil is palpable. The ghosts of those selection queues were standing alongside me. I don’t blame him, he was doing his job, but the guide’s script was basic and general. As I listened I wanted everyone to be outraged and to be questioning but they just politely attended to all that was being said. We were allowed into one of the huts. You could see the daylight streaming through the poor, wooden construction and the thought of a Polish winter chill on undernourished, broken spirited, inadequately clothed, barefoot people was sobering to put it mildly. The indignity of the latrines dissipated my own bladder concerns. We were allowed some time to wander before returning to the coach. Because of the drizzly mist you couldn’t see where the huts ended.They seemed to stretch forever in uniform rows.  The crematoria were in ruins where the Nazis had made a half hearted effort to try and obliterate the evidence of what they had done. There was a tasteful memorial acknowledging the many groups and origins of people who perished. But as I looked around I went beyond the mere physical remains of the place. There are few words to describe the emptiness, the futility, the palpable sense of evil and the sheer heart break. It started to drizzle a little harder and it was if the tears of the six million were gently falling on my head pleading with me to never forget them. 

I don’t remember the trip to the main camp. It was as if one moment we were at Birkenau and the next we were at the main camp. Fortunately the public convenience is outside the ‘campus’ so I was able to make myself comfortable without insulting my conscience. But the relief was short lived. The ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign is synonymous for so many peoples’ vision of the concentration camps. But oh! To step underneath it is like walking into the jaws of hell. It is horrible.

I felt I had to take this photo......

Paradoxically though, the main camp is constructed of several warm, red brick buildings and as we were led through the first one, down a corridor whose walls were adorned with photos of the numbered inmates we were shown where they slept on pallets of straw it seemed somehow less brutal than the huts at Birkenau. If we’d visited here first I think the impact at Birkenau would have been even greater. 

We were led into another building and invited into one of the rooms. My friend and I went in and then came straight back out again we were so horrified by what we thought we’d seen. My friend’s partner went into the room and when he came out he said, ‘It’s okay it’s not real.’ Trustingly we went back. But it was real. It was so real. It was so soul crushingly real. Along the length of one wall of the room was a huge glass case full of human hair. That sight will never leave me. 

We continued numbly through a labyrinth of glass cased rooms containing, spectacles, false limbs, suitcases and finally - shoes. Here’s where I broke. The poignancy is unimaginable. The sheer volume and the implications are devastating. The result of that is that now all of my shoes have to be in boxes in the cupboard so I can’t see them or allow them to be out of place !! I don’t care if that seems weird and unbalanced, so be it. That’s what it did to me.

My friends and I somehow got split up at that point. I think we were so shell shocked and numbed that we were walking blindly anywhere. In fact I can barely remember what I saw next my head was so full of those glass cases. But I do remember the infamous Block 11,  the detention block, the punishment cells, the portable gallows and the yard where prisoners were shot. The sense of death was almost overwhelming. You could almost smell the blood still. 

And if that was harrowing what we saw next is hard to write about. Behind the main administrative building is an obviously man made kind of grassy mound with a chimney seeming to rise from it. The theory was that this ‘facility’ was behind the administration offices so prisoners would not realise what was actually happening. The first thing that hits you when you stand in the gas chambers at Auschwitz is the cold, then the relentless emptiness and the inviolable hopelessness. The desire to leave immediately is hard to resist but I made myself stand there for several seconds. To leave the chamber you have to pass by the furnaces, two of them, grey, the insides showing they had been well used. 

That was the second time I sobbed in a public place. 

I don’t remember the journey back or the rest of the evening.But I wrote in my journal at that time, ‘Whatever you’ve read, seen or think you’ve understood about Auschwitz nothing prepares you for the reality. I will never be the same again.’ On our following day in Krakow we tried to redress the balance by visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory but that was emotional in a converse way. 

There were renovations going on but you can just see the original gates.
Genocides occur periodically through history. Is it the sheer numbers that render the Holocaust more horrifying for me? It disturbs me that I don't feel the same intensity about  Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so on. And I should. Maybe I see the Holocaust as a symbol for all genocide? But can we ever escape it? And what we can say of prejudice and discrimination? Are we, have we learnt any lessons? 

I’m no less perplexed about the Holocaust and Auschwitz. I won’t return there again. But it was important for me to go. But why? To pay my respects?  To not let the memories of those who perished fade? To understand that by perpetuating knowledge about the Holocaust we can somehow avoid it happening again? To try and understand? To comprehend and question. To cry. To weep for mans’ inhumanity to man. But, maybe. Just maybe. To hope? 

At the going down of the sun
And in the morning.
We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon

Thank you for reading. x

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Our Child of the Stars - Stephen Cox

Tricky one to review, this, initially, without giving too much away. To do so would spoil the impact of reading about the amazing event that Molly and Gene Myers are dealing with. However I did wonder how other reviewers had dealt with this conundrum but I found that few had resisted the temptation to divulge the fact that the titular child was in fact an ‘alien’ child. And from there mentions of ET, Spielberg and Close Encounters follow which does give a very good flavour of the book. I was also reminded of  Guillermo del Toro's beautiful film,The Shape of Water. So I’m going along with that and I apologise profusely if these are seen as spoilers. 

An alternative title could have been ‘The Pilot’s Child’  but I’m not going to be drawn down the spoiler path again so I’m not saying why!  You just might want to read the book to find out why!

If I have anything negative to say, I’ll say it now and get it out of the way and it is that the book seemed overlong to me. The point of the book was being made throughout the narrative and readers will have drawn many conclusions before the end of the book. In essence they would have arrived there before the book did! But I’m ahead of myself. However I have nothing else negative to say. Science fiction, primarily, a fantasy, if you want a genre. But behind the story lies the desire for some realistic hope for our beleaguered planet. 

Set in 60’s, Cold War America, the threats and conspiracies of that era creep insidiously though the pages of the book although the beginning is innocent and storybook like. Molly Myers is making a Halloween costume for her young son Cory. And as the story line is developed we learn of the fractures that were appearing in the Myers’ relationship before Cory graced their lives. Gene, a Librarian and musician, Molly a nurse, both living their lives as best they can until an event occurs that changes everything forever.  

The narrative is detailed, with moments of pure tension and excitement urging the reader to turn the page. Other moments require a more speculative and contemplative response as the true intent behind the book takes shape. Our loyalties towards Molly, Gene and of course Cory are never allowed to waver. That is most important for it allows us, as readers, to not only be part of the unfolding of the story but to remain stalwarts in the defence wall required against the aggressors who seek to destroy. There are subtle implications that require further thought but can be missed in the excitement of the actions. I saw an implicit suggestion of more than one species of ‘alien’ on earth. 

It could be argued that you need suspension of belief and much imagination to enjoy this story to its utmost but equally there are belief systems that would read it all as tacit. I find that a strength because it renders the book accessible to a wide audience. I might even go as far as to say it it runs the gamut of YA fiction through to OA (Old Adult) fiction! However the complexities of relationships push it further towards the OA market. But the character of Cory is multi layered and perhaps that is where I saw the appeal to a younger audience. However his wisdom transcends any age barriers. Gene and Molly too are accessible characters and the villains are truly hissable - ‘nasty Liar-Man’ to quote Cory sounding a little like Andy Serkis’s Gollum.

It’s a captivating tale; enjoy it as a story or better still, plunder its deeper depths and see it as a manifesto for our times? What am I talking about? Read it and see.

My thanks to Quercus Books where I procured a proof copy at their wonderful WOMB event last October. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

The Six Loves of Billy Binns - Richard Lumsden

I found this book to be a complete and utter surprise! Firstly, I hadn’t been expecting it, it just turned up! So, thank you Tinder Press. Secondly I looked at the cover and the title and the blurb and I thought it was going to be a light, fluffy almost frivolous read from an actor who I remembered from the Catherine Tate Show. Oh, how wrong could I be! For what I read was a moving, considered work about the nature of ageing and what it can do to the body and the mind and how hard it is to hang on to all those experiences from our lives that have an influence on who we are and how we feel.

There was a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Drama broadcast with Tom Courtenay as Billy in 2013 (worth a listen if you can find it) and I guess the idea for a full length novel came from that. 

Billy Binns (I think the name ‘Binns’ contributed to my initial notion of a more superficial read?) is over a hundred and all too aware that he cannot endure for much longer. He is resident in a Care Home. As he ‘rages, against the dying of the light', he wants to remember love, what it was, what it is, what it felt like…….. What follows is the life story of a man born at the start of the twentieth century who lived and loved through two world wars. 

It’s a dual narrative with the meat of the book being Billy’s life story which centres around his loves and relationships. The more cerebral parts come from Billy’s residency in the home and how his thoughts, fragmented at times, recall the past and reconjures the depth of his emotion.
The character of Billy is ably sustained throughout the novel, he’s no angel but he’s honest and there’s no overt sugar coating. The other characters fade in and out of the story as one might expect when a life of such longevity is being described. There are times when they seem to be functional at best, Clem maybe and some of the Home staff, but others step off the page with more depth like Mrs.Jackson and Vera.

Interesting to consider how this book might resonate with an audience of varying ages? If you are heading towards, shall we say, more mature years there is a poignancy to some of the novel. The sense of missed opportunities, lost loves, and regrets should strike a chord with older readers. Younger readers may think of their parents, grandparents in a slightly different light as the unfolding of a life and the development of a person through a sustained period of time is described. 

There is plenty of history too; conditions and aspects of both WW1 and WW2 are covered authentically. Sociological trends through two millennia are touched on yet it is not a book that sets out to educate. It is first and foremost a novel about an old man wanting to hold on to love. And isn’t that what we all want to do? 

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Village of the Lost Girls - Agustín Martínez SOCIAL MEDIA BLAST

Good morning! Welcome to the Social Media blast for this auspicious crime noir - Agustín Martínez and his Village of the Lost Girls.

A new writer to me, Agustín Martínez was born in 1975 and studied Audiovisual Communications in Madrid.Today, he is one of Spain's most renowned screenwriters who has worked on some of the country's most popular crime series. On a holiday trip with his family to the Pyrenees he overheard the locals talking about the case of a missing child. The idea for Village of the Lost Girls, his first novel, was born and has been translated into many languages since. Now it's available in English translated by Frank Wynne, an award winning Irish literary translator who has translated a couple of Man Booker nominated titles in the past. 

This is a page turner, one of the potential ’unputdownables’ of the year I should think. It’s a lost child story, of which there are many nowadays and many good ones.  There’s those where the missing child is never found  but the perp is and a whole story ensues, those where they are found and the story is how the perpetrator is discovered.There’s those where the child is found but their identity is in question and so on, other permutations around the same theme. So what do you do to make yours different? Well, what Agustin Martinez has done is to take two girls and lose them and then find just one. Clever? You bet. Then he offers an almost claustrophobic setting so the reader knows it just has to be one of the characters you’re engaging with closely in the story. But who?!?!

Set in an homogenous village, Monteperdido (translation - Lost Mountain), in Spain surrounded by beautiful mountains and countryside, it's a perfect location to lose anything if you felt so inclined. The return of a child lost some five years previously opens the, not so much a cold case as not as hot as it was case, bringing in police from beyond the village, Sara Campo and her older, detective partner Santiago Bain, 'I believe in God, not in man." he says at one point which makes for an interesting viewpoint from a policeman. 

I found the start of the story slow and staccato but I think that was a case of adjusting to the style of translation. After a few pages I forgot all about it and became immersed in the book. As in the best contemporary crime noir offerings our police persons are as flawed as the rest of the villagers it seems! Sara has her demons to fight and the case consumes her. It's almost as if her police work allows her an avoidance technique to solve her issues. Interestingly the issues remain unsolved and I wonder whether there might be a room for a series of Sara Campo stories? Guess only Señor Martínez knows the answer to that. The book is almost as much about her as it is the lost girls. She is a complex character but drawn with faults aplenty but drawn so sympathetically that you can't help but warm to her and root for her to crack this case with a satisfactory outcome. Does she? Not saying. You'll have to subject me to torture if you want to wrestle a spoiler out of me. 😉 But it's an effective piece of police procedural writing that shows character development in all of the law enforcement personnel. 

As with many stories of this genre it is tempting to offer spoilers simply to illustrate how good some parts of the book are yet that would be a disservice to potential readers of the book. To not do so is a challenge for a garrulous reviewer. Suffice to say the book begins with a short prologue and it's not a spoiler to say that this explains that the girls go missing. The main thrust of the book opens with a big event that results in one of the girls reappearing. Not a spoiler either as that fact appears on the cover. What follows from then on until almost the end is a tour de force of potential suspects and enough red herrings to open a fishmonger's. It's one of those books where you are absolutely convinced that you know who the villain is and then the case against them crumbles spectacularly and you move on to the next and so the pattern repeats. It's like a pendulum as new evidence is uncovered taking us back to previously rejected suspects. We, the reader, are absolutely convinced that we know who it is and start to become as dismissive of the police as some of the disgruntled villagers. Then we see how clever Sara and her colleagues are. But we are given plenty of clues - 'The most dangerous man is a solitary man, because even he does not know who he is. Because there is no one to tell him his story.' Tantalising maxim. Then you find that many of the characters are solitary. 

As well as the twists and turn regarding the potential suspects and perpetrators there are a couple of completely unexpected events that shake you and you reread in disbelief. Bold moves indeed. Some considered and exacting plotting.

The characters are all pretty much well defined. There's quite a cast, you need to keep on top of them. But you believe in them and their foibles, there's few who you feel are merely functional. Even the weather becomes a character of sorts, never a suspect, never a victim, but a subtle impediment to proceedings. If I have any criticism it would be that the book is a little overlong and would have benefited from some waffle editing. 

This book should delight aficionados of the genre.It's competent writing. Not surprising seeing that Agustín Martínez is a screen writer but this would translate well to the screen as perhaps a mini series for it is over long for a feature film I think. It has a similar plot style to those of Jed Mercurio's. It's a 'who didn't do it' more than a 'whodunnit' but it's a 'well dunnit'!

My thanks to Ella Patel at Quercus Books for a proof of this absorbing tale and for the opportunity to participate in the Social Media blast. Do check out my fellow bloggers and see what others think?

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

RETRO REVIEWING: Yet another crime trio - Nigel McCrery, Jean Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen, John Bude

I read a lot of crime and thrillers so it's not surprising there's another trio post. The first, published in December 2015, I enjoyed very much. I know Mr. McCrery's TV series endure, I guess his fiction will too.

You do not have to read this book. But it may harm your defence if you do not. Anything you do read can be given in evidence. 

May I make a suggestion? Before you read this book? The suggestion is this; allow yourself plenty of time because you will not want to put it down.

This is such a satisfying read. It’s well written, concise but not brief, all we need to know is given to us. The characters are accessible and crucial to the development of the story. There’s an element of predictability to the identity of our villain but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. The familiarity with police  procedures is accurate and plausible. The pace is maintained throughout and a level of tension endures as a backdrop throughout the book.

The main detective has such an interesting health condition it adds to the interest. It’s unusual. It’s all so tight and well thought out and if I have to say anything negative it is that the ending is a little anti climactic but then the bulk of the book is so rich the come down probably couldn’t be anything else. It’s a very visual book too and would do well as a TV adaptation and that should be no problem for Mr. McCrery given his screenwriting pedigree of things like New Tricks and Silent Witness. 

If I hadn’t read this book - I’d read it again!!

Flambe in Armagnac was just a delight to read. It hit our shores in August 2015 and I always meant to read some more books by these guys but alas, to date, I haven't. If there's an argument to living a long life it is surely to be able to read all the books I want to read. 

Having recently stayed in rustic, rural France this little novella was right up my Rue!!

And, for me, a new genre has landed - Gastro Crime. The homage to food and drink throughout this story almost outdoes John Lanchester without the madness of The Debt to Pleasure. But this surely was a pleasure to read. And for anyone who might be daunted by a five hundred page plus crime thriller then I think this is an ideal solution. I believe this is just one story in a whole series. And I don’t know if my mouth is watering from the thought of more of these stories or the descriptions of food.

However this is a translation and I always think you’re only getting half a book when you read a work in translation. Through no fault of the translator the subtleties of the language, the idioms and cadences are lost.  So there is a slightly staccato feel to the flow of the narrative. Sacre Bleu!! I wish I were fluent in French and could read this in the original. I would probably give five stars.

But, translation, notwithstanding we are treated to a delightful menu of French customs and etiquette. I had absolutely no idea that the much parodied and emulated cheek peck kisses follow strict regional protocol as to how many kisses should be offered to each cheek!! And apart from how to drink the stuff I knew nothing about the production of brandies. 

And to the crime story itself. It is compact and accessible. Paradoxical almost as it is understated, undemanding and yet there are the intricacies and complexities of a crime plot. I found a predictability as the story unfolded but it was the unravelling of the details of the crime that allows the book to get away with that. I’d need to read some more in the series to refine my opinion but I think these would make a great TV series. 

I have a very clear picture of Benjamin Cooker, his competence and professionalism. Indeed all characters have their clear parts to play. No one was gratuitous. Some were a little one dimensional. But our main protagonists were believable. 

There was something almost delightfully old fashioned as the mature, experienced Benjamin allowed his younger sidekick to learn and develop alongside him, something Holmes and  Watsony? Maybe that’s a step too far. It wasn’t quite Batman and Robin but you get the idea? 

And I loved the name of the dog!! So apt. I’m not going to tell you what it is. I don’t do spoilers.

This was the first British Library Crime Classics I got my hands on but it was an ebook from the outfit I reviewed for who only offered me ebooks. I had no idea of what was in store for me when I was accepted onto the British LIbrary's mailing list. I've had many of the subsequent titles with their glorious cover art and they're a treat. This one originally published in 1953 was republished by the British Library in 2016.

Reading this book was a joyous event! It was like Famous Five for grownups but with ‘lashings of information’ instead of lashings of ginger beer. What a delight to read such a cerebral crime story. And with little in the way of forensics and technology it was a real workout for the brain. It was so easy to feel transported back in time when villains were cads and bounders, ladies were ladies and all stereotypes and political incorrectness no longer seems to matter whilst you are enveloped in 1950s French Riviera life. The characters are almost but not quite caricatures and they leap out of the page at you. The initial premise is very simple; two British policeman sent to France to apprehend the ringleader of a counterfeit currency scam going on in France. Co operation with the French police is limitless but there the simplicity stops as the plot thickens, as they say. As the title informs us there is a death. But much happens in the book before that point. The unravelling of the crime and its executions and the motives are ably detected by Detective Inspector Meredith and the treatment is reminiscent of the narrative device used in the BBC TV series Death in Paradise. I wondered more than once whether Bude might in part be the inspiration for the series. It’s an unpretentious read that just revels in its genre and it’s historical period.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

RETRO REVIEWING: Miscellaneous Trio - James Grady, Gregory David Roberts and Donato Carrisi

No real intent behind this grouping. A miscellaneous collection of reviews books! Last Days of the Condor was published in August 2015 and it plopped through my letter box one day. Reader, I liked it.

Last Days of the Condor - James Grady 27 Aug 2015

Mr. Grady’s previous book about the Condor, Six Days of the Condor,  was made into a Hollywood film, clearly shortened from the book as it was called Three Days of the Condor!! Reading this story has made me want to watch the film and probably read the first book.

Mr. Grady is a best selling author and with good reason. This story is a tour de force of excitement and precision. I barely had time to catch my breath. It is truly action packed and I enjoyed it immensely. I found it required a high level of concentration to get the best from it as some of the spy protocols and practices were convoluted to say the least, as well as incredibly clever and well thought out. The tension and intrigue were sustained consistently . Violent in places but necessary violence for the most part to make it clear how ruthless a business espionage is.

I found the characters believable within the contact of the setting. Whether the character of the Condor was sustained from the first book I can't say as I haven’t read it. But the characters retained their humanity throughout in spite of the sometimes awful things they endured and carried out themselves. 

Someone I was reviewing for absolutely raved about Shantaram and was desperate for an ARC of the follow up. I believe that I received this advance copy of the follow up accidentally as the publicist misinterpreted the email from her which was requesting a different book to be sent to me. Two books were sent to me. So I read and reviewed them both.  It would have been rude not to! (The lady I was reviewing for did get her own copy of The Mountain Shadow, published in October 2015, I'm pleased to say).

Before I begin I must confess that I haven’t read Shantaram. I know, I know, I feel bad that I have been privileged to read The Mountain Shadow without serving my apprenticeship. But I do now have a copy of Shantaram and I will read it. Although I may change my opinion retrospectively when I have done so I don’t feel that my enjoyment of The Mountain Shadow has been compromised by the omission. 

This book is a glorious paradox. On the one hand you have a catalogue of criminality; torture, corruption, the mafia, violence, fraud, bribery, drug abuse, prostitution, gang wars, arson and then you are treated to aphorisms that would grace the pages of any new age, self help book of spiritual insight. At one point I thought Gregory David Roberts had morphed into Neale Donald Walsch and I was reading Conversations With God!

The breadth of the novel is immense, at 800 plus pages it has to be. It’s a thriller, a crime story, a love story, an adventure story. It has history, sociology, religion - surely something for everyone? And it all moves along at a cracking pace. There is a yin and yang to it all, synthesised by Shantaram himself and all kinds of questions are thrown up about good and bad, friendship and enmity, revenge and retribution, wealth and poverty and deeper issues, can a criminal also be a good person? And I sometimes feel myself inadequate to express the bounty within this work and do it justice. 

My understanding is that this, in common with Shantaram, is in part autobiographical with that indefinable Kerouac-like fusion of fact and fiction. And the characters contained within seem so real that you have to believe they are drawn from real life connections. 

And if I was pressed to define subliminally what this book is about what would I say? Love? Loyalty? Synchronicity? Hope?

And I am humbled for this book deserves better words than I can give it. So I’ll stop trying except to say that it has been more of an experience than merely ‘reading a book’. I have been ‘shantaramed”.

This crime novel, published in November 2015, was the book referred to in the introduction to The Mountain Shadow review. I enjoyed this so much I bought some other by Carrisi which I have yet to read. He's a thinking man's Dan Brown.

There is nothing like a good crime thriller. And this is nothing like a good crime thriller. This is like a brilliant crime thriller!!

Signor Carrisi is a new writer to me and you know what, I dread finding a new writer I like because it means I now have to go and find everything he’s ever written and add them to the pile. To quote Maud Casey, ‘I was born with a reading list I will never finish.’ and now I add Donato Carrisi.

I was drawn into this from the very first sentence and I couldn’t put it down. It was almost like an Italian Tony Hill, and Carol Jordan, the profiler and the policewoman. But add to that heady mix liberal helpings of psychology, philosophy, theology and more besides and you have a story of substance. and I think that’s what elevates this tale beyond the ‘ordinary’ crime thriller, there are so many layers to satisfy the discerning reader.

Credit, too, must go to Howard Curtis, the translator, who has done such a marvellous job. Italian is such a musical language of rhythm and richness that could so easily have been lost in translation but not so here. The descriptive passages retain all of the flow that they must enjoy in the original language.

There is so much going on on this story that it would be a crime in itself to try and précis it, something I am not keen on anyway. So if you enjoy crimes and thrillers and some kind of substance to your reading I doubt you will be disappointed with this novel.

It’s a complex plot with strands and sub plots that tantalise without becoming too muddled to persevere with as can happen sometimes.  There are clues a plenty and herrings as big and as bright as Royal Mail pillar boxes. I will smugly say that I did figure out the premise of the killer’s motivation but instead of diluting the latter stages of the book it was enriching. 

There’s nothing more I can say. Reading what I think is wasting the time you could be spending reading this book. Go do it. Now.